Society for Crypto Judaic Studies
FINDING MY PAST
By Norma Waggoner
from HaLapid Spring, 2002
And Adonai went ahead of them in a column of cloud during the daytime to lead them on their way, and at night in a column of fire to give them light; thus they could travel both day and night. Neither the column of cloud by day nor the column of cloud at night went away from in front of the people . . . (Exodus-Sh' mot 13:21-22)
The story I am about to share is the story of a life G-d has wanted to use. No, this life is not deserving of the blessing of G-d, but out of His graciousness He has brought it all to be!
My story starts in a small Los Angeles town. El Sereno to be exact, a community of Italians, Hispanics, and some Anglos. In what is now East Los Angeles, my Egypt. My grandmother calls to me from the back house where she lives, I come running with my braids hitting the sides of my face as I bounce towards her. She calls me to assist her with a ritual she does almost everyday. She is done draining the meat and she would like to have my help. "Grandma, why don't we just pour the blood down the drain?" I say. But she says in her native tongue. "Mija, it would become unclean." I don't understand her meaning, but I help and we walk side-by-side carrying the large black enamel pot between us. She tells me to get the small garden shovel and dig her a hole near our apple tree. And I do it, eager to go play. When her hole is dug, she spills the contents of her pot into the moist dirt and says some words that I can barely hear. She is saying an old phase she says as we do this ritual almost everyday. She pours the blood and water out into the hole. Then she recites a prayer “From life to life.” She says it ever so low as to keep it a secret between her and G-d but I know she is speaking, for her lips are parting ever so slightly. “Cover it up mija. And put that away.” I run to do what I'm told and go to play.
And so my grandmother with her strange little quirks goes inside. She is a small-framed woman with a simple black and white checkered dress and her black nylons and black shoes. She always wore black everything, even her head shawl was black. Except the beautiful tortoise shell hair comb she had which she wore on her silky pepper grey hair. My grandmother was a very religious person and who would think she would dwell in the halls of my mind forever? Who would know that she was practicing a 500-year-old custom that was taught to her by her ancestors? Who would have recognized the things she did as Jewish? My mother would say, “Your grandmother is always doing brewhadia,” even though my mother did some brewhadia of her own.
Looking back, it all makes sense, all that my grandmother did. It has been the beginning of an Exodus for me. Now I am 37 years old and the past has come to haunt me, not in a way that has been frightening, but in a way that has put some puzzle pieces together.
I began my journey a year ago while attending a messianic congregation. Why a messianic congregation, you ask? Well I wanted the meat of the bible and I knew that the bible was a Jewish book, written by Jewish men, written in a Jewish tongue, and about a Jewish messiah, then what better place to go! A Jewish messianic congregation was the place to be! I had been going to a Christian church and that was fine, but I felt a drawing to the messianic people and the G-d of Israel. I wanted to learn about this very Jewish G-d and His people; unfortunately, my church knew nothing of its Jewish roots and it wasn't teaching it either. How, I wondered, could we have the Jewish messiah and not care for His people? Read his book and ignore His people? And how could we Americanize Him and forget how Israeli He was? He was a Sabra, a native of Israel!
Needless to say I met G-d later at a synagogue, His Torah and His people, and it was an awesome experience. When I first walked through the doors I was met by a beautiful sea of white. The men were wearing tallit or prayer shawls. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. That sea of white took my breath away. It was as if I was transported back in time to the first century church of the apostles. I sat down not really paying attention to the service because I was mesmerized by the scene I was in. This was different from the church I had gone to and rightly so, I was in a very Jewish place! But I didn't expect this beautiful element. This sea of white! The building was full of Hebrew chants and prayers, which I did not understand, but produced a poetic melody in the air. Then I noticed a large closet of some kind behind the bima where the cantor was. It was large with a light placed above it to the side. Two men were called to come up. They went to the closet, opened it and slid a burgundy curtain aside. There was this ancient scroll, dressed in a beautiful blue covering which had an embroidered star of David with lions holding what seem to be the ten commandments. It was beautiful! It also had a silver crown on it and a breastplate around the top of it hanging in front. They removed the scroll with such care. Then they began a procession with the scroll around the congregation. I was excited because I knew I was going to get a better look at this object. Everyone followed the scroll never taking his or her eyes off it. People touched it with their bibles and the men touched it with their fringes on their tallits. Then there I was face to face with this ancient piece of history that was so beautiful to me. I extended my bible and touched it and brought it back to my lips and kissed the Son as in Psalm 12:22. Tears welled up in my eyes and I didn't understand why. But I knew I was happy and I had a sense of home.
Later in the week I was invited to the home of a Jewish Sephardi family to have Shabbat with them. I was so excited that they were welcoming me into their home. When I got there, we began the Kiddush and it was so reminiscent of the times I had spent with my grandmother on Friday nights. She would call us over as the sun was going down; my parents never came but they always made sure we went to Grandma's. She would have her table adorned with a beautiful white mantel as she called it. She would also have two candleholders placed somewhere in the middle with white little candles. She would place her hands on my head and on my brother’s and recite something in Spanish. I do remember her saying Adonai and Señor and Nuestros Padres and as soon as it started it was over. My brother and I would run outside and go play before the day would escape us. She would let the candles burn out; I knew this because I could see the glow through her windows as they burned. I would sometimes wonder why she even lit candles, but when I questioned it, I was always told that it was cause we were Catholic. I would shrug my shoulders, anyway I was just nine or ten at the time, maybe even younger and my thoughts were always somewhere else.
After the Kiddush at my friend’s home, Miriam, Marks wife, introduced me to her son-in-law Tony. After exchanging “hello” he asked if I were Jewish. I said “no” and he asked if I was sure? I was surprised that he questioned me again. I said, "Aren't all Jews from Europe? Do I look European to you?" He said that he was Sephardic. I had never heard that term. I asked him to explain. He told me it meant that he was a Jew from Spain. Wow, what a concept, I thought all Jewish people were white. How ignorant I must have sounded!
We continued to talk and he said he wanted to show me something on the computer. So we went to the office and he began clicking away. I asked, “Where are you taking me?” He said “Spain.” He actually took me to a sight called ‘Sephardim.com.” It was very interesting! I read the inquisition edict, and that was really a mind blower to me! I told Tony that we were taught that the inquisition was to tame the savage Indians in America. He said "You would change history too if your hands were stained with blood!" I had to think about that one for a while. He then asked what my grandparents’ names were. "Why would you want to know that?" I asked. He said, "Just tell me, what are you afraid of?" That was a challenge so I told him. Rodriguez, Martinez, Vasquez, Luna.
He said that those names were Sephardic and that we would find them here. I said that the writer of the site said in his intro that a name didn't mean that you were Sephardic and then I sat back with my arms folded. We went to the rites and rituals page and I was not ready for the shock I was going to receive. As we were scanning the page I couldn't believe my eyes. It was like I was watching my grandmother materialize before my eyes. I couldn't contain myself and I felt a desperate need to run. Tony turned and looked at me and noticed I was not doing well. "What's wrong?" he asked but I could say nothing, I was just shaking and I began to burst into tears. He hugged me and said, "Mazal tov little sister, I knew it!" He then called everyone up stairs and they joined in the hugging and kissing. I broke free and ran downstairs; all I wanted to do was run away. Everyone looked at me and all I could say was "I'm sorry." And I left.
I cried all the way home. I couldn't understand why my family lied to me, why they had told me these were all things a good Catholic does? I then sank into a state of depression for three months! It wasn't because being Jewish was a bad thing, but I felt like Moses! Here he thought he was a part of Pharaoh’s court and he finds he's Hebrew! I thought I was going crazy and I felt so alone. What was I going to do? Who would help me? What happens now? I never wanted to take from the Jewish people. Sure I loved them and wanted them to go back to their land, but I did not want to steal their glory or their rights as some people do. And I was afraid I was doing that. That I was a loony grabbing Jewishness out of the air for some kind of self gain. And I definitely didn't want to do that! ! ! But I was lost.
Then one day I was watching a pastor Ortiz on a channel who was talking about the Sephardic Jews. He gave some history of the valley there in Texas and talked about the Mexican Inquisition. It was very alarming what happened to those poor people—my people? I had a hard time saying that. I did some more crying and a lot of listening. He went on and shared the names of conversos. He explained how they didn't kill the remnant of Jews and that the remnant survives! Some of that remnant was walking around not knowing who they were. What an understatement! I raised my hand as if to say, “Here I am.” After that night, I told G-d that if He wanted me to know who I was, then He had better send someone to help me with this because I didn't know where to start! A week later He did! I meet a Sephardic Jew named Dovid Luna, He had more degrees than a thermometer and he had done a twenty-five year study on the name Luna! Wow, what a break! He lived in El Paso and was such a great help. He also introduced me to another man by the name Michael Mosiah Angel who told me how the Angels and the Lunas were in the courts of royalty. I went back to the messianic synagogue. I left for they wanted me to prove my Jewishness all the time, with articles and letters. I began going to a reform temple and they never asked me to prove anything. I loved it! I could be a Jew and worship with Jews, it was and is wonderful! ! ! ! But there is still one thing missing. I would like to be around other Sephardic Jews at a Sephardic temple and share an experience of being with my people.
I'm enclosing a list of the traditions in my home that my family and grandparents did:
l. Covering mirrors when someone died and during certain Holidays such as Lent and Dia de Ester.
2. When someone died children were not allowed to go to the funeral.
3. We ate oven-roasted eggs when someone died and the adults would dip their egg in ashes and we sat on the floor as we did this.
4. When my Uncle Pollo died he had a funeral of a poor man I thought. He was put in a simple wooden pine box with a sheet cloth wrapped around his body and he also had to be buried in twenty-four hours. My mom said it was because they had no refrigeration but mind you these were the late 70's.
5. We had to wear black ribbons and my mom and his wife wore a black piece of material and ripped it.
6. We had to wear black for seven days and could not look at ourselves in the mirror or hear the radio or TV or even laugh. We couldn't even take a shower. You could just wash your hands and teeth and face. Also no make up during this time.
7. After their spouse died, older women would wear black for a year.
8. When a child was born, the women would sing and encourage the mother, saying they were protecting her from the evil eye.
9. When a baby was born it was given a pin to wear to ward off the evil eye. The pin was made from a nut that they called “goat’s eye.” it was brown with a black dash making it look like an eye. It was tied with red ribbon and a safety pin.
10. Babies were also given an amulet that looked like a hand, it was silver and tied with red ribbon.
11. Baby boys were circumcised after birth.
12. During the week of Lent our family could not eat any bread, we ate matzo which I thought was a Spanish word. When I asked my other Catholic friends if they were sick of matzo they would reply. “What's that?” When I would ask my grandmother why I had to eat it if my friends didn’t. she would say “Somos muy Católicos”" That was her answer for everything I questioned so I stopped asking.
13. There was always soaking of the meat and salting with kosher salt and constant rinsing.
14. Blood and water were taken outside and buried.
15. A nerve or vein was pulled out from meat or poultry.
16. We would spend Christmas time with family in El Paso. There were candles but no Christmas trees in the houses.
17. The women would make a desert for the kids called bunuelos which my mom makes to this day. Flour, water and cinnamon is mixed into these flat tortilla shapes and dried. Then they are fried in olive oil only and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Oranges and nuts are served too.
18. We sang songs about the Cavritico (baby goat/kid) , which we sang, near some water in the spring; also songs about a hole of a needle in the sky that Maestro Padre looked down on us through.
19. A strange nickname my Grandmother called me, "Yudi" and my brother was called "Nuni."
20. My dad always would wear a fedora, it was a small hat. He had a gray one and black one.
21. We never had religious statues in our home.
22. My mother and aunts would play a game called “Toma Todo” for pennies. It looked like a dreidel.
23. Having tefillin.
24. An old tallit with no corner fringes. I think it belonged to my grandfather. My mom wouldn’t give it to me.
25. The designs on family grave stones were six pointed lilies. No saints.
26. A family history of always running as if being chased.
Here is a sample of one of the weird rhymes my mother would say that her mother had told her. They are always sung. Some of the words are different from Spanish of today.
Estava un gadito senando, Se pago el candil
No e yava por salid Cordio con su cormadre
Comadre comadre prétame su burra blanka
Que me voy a Salamanka.
El Salamanka se contro una monita que de seeya Ten te lon, Ten te lon, Mureta se eyvon en un cahon,
Como la cahon eda de lana, Mureto te eyvan a la casa de Juana
Como Juana eda bonita, Mureta te eyvon con la coorita
Como la coorita eda Santo, Murita se eyvon a la composanto Como la composanto eda de yeso, Mureto te eyvon a comed chesso
Como el chesso eda de vaca, Mureto te eyvon a comed caca.
It is just one of the many strange little songs they told us. The word coorito means “priest.” She said “priest” was not “padre.”
FLAVIO MONTOYA’S TRANSLATION OF THE POEM
Former SCJS board member Flavio Montoya has translated the above poem and added an explanation of some of the words.
There was a little man from Cadiz (un gado is a person from Cadiz)
Eating his dinner
When his candle went out.
He could not find his way out.
He ran to his comadre
Loan me your white burro
Cause I'm going to Salamanca.
In Salamanca he met a monkey
Who was saying,
"Ten te lon, ten te lon".
Mureta climbed into a box,
But as the box was made of wool,
Mureta went to Juana's house.
As Juana was pretty,
Mureta went to look for a priest.
As the priest was holy,
Mureta went to the cemetery.
As the cemetery was full of marble,
Mureta sent you to eat cheese.
As the cheese was made of milk,
Mureta sent you to eat caca.
Gadito- In old Spanish a person from the city of Cadiz was called a gado.
Comadre- This relationship has no equivalent in English but is widely used even today in all latin countries. In French it is comere, in Italian it is cumare and in Spanish it is comadre.
Salamanca-capital of the province of Leon.
Eyvon-A form of “to be” This word is probably extinct today. It is used in New Mexico Ladino and is pronounced aivan. I have not heard it used any where else.
Mureta- In old Spanish a mureto was a dark skinned person and is called a morena or moreno in modern Spanish.
Camposanto– Cemetery, as used today in New Mexico.
Yeso is a soft stone used for carving statues and the equivalent today is probably plaster of paris. The word yeso is used figuratively in the poem and refers to the grave markers made of marble or some like material and probably because it rhymes with queso or chesso as they say in the poem.
Norma Waggoner phoned Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Los Angeles because she suspected Jewish Roots. She was referred to SCJS President Arthur Benveniste, who asked her to write this article.